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Yanks' next test, Nats' desert trip key big slate

MLB.com @RichardJustice

Hey, James Paxton, what would you like to know about Johnny Vander Meer? Go ahead, ask us anything. Yes, it's that time again.

It was 80 years ago next month that Vander Meer, then a 23-year-old Reds lefty, threw back-to-back no-hitters. He got the Boston Bees on June 11 and the Brooklyn Dodgers four days later. No one has done it since.

Hey, James Paxton, what would you like to know about Johnny Vander Meer? Go ahead, ask us anything. Yes, it's that time again.

It was 80 years ago next month that Vander Meer, then a 23-year-old Reds lefty, threw back-to-back no-hitters. He got the Boston Bees on June 11 and the Brooklyn Dodgers four days later. No one has done it since.

If this isn't the most unbreakable record in sports, it's on a very short list, and Paxton gets his shot on Sunday afternoon at Comerica Park against the Tigers. He got halfway up the mountain on Tuesday with a brilliant 99-pitch no-no in Toronto.

Video: Must C Classic: James Paxton closes out no-hitter

Paxton is one of the top storylines of a weekend in which the Yankees will attempt to keep their magic going, the D-backs and Nationals will offer a potential October preview and the National League Central has four teams separated by an eyelash.

• Up-to-the-minute standings

Let's check out what's likely to be the weekend's most compelling action:

1. Just how good are these Yankees anyway?

Remember when the Dodgers had that little 81-24 run last season? Some of us thought we'd never see anything like it again. We're not into that territory just yet with the 2018 Yankees, but over the past three weeks, New York has been close to perfect.

The Athletics will be at Yankee Stadium this weekend to see for themselves. They'll face their former ace, Sonny Gray, on Friday, then get a pair of fireballers the next two days.

Video: Must C Clutch: Yankees rally in 8th to take lead

Domingo German will make his second big league start on Saturday. The 25-year-old right-hander, filling in for the injured Jordan Montgomery, pitched six scoreless innings against the Indians in his debut. And then on Sunday, it's the Yanks' ace, 24-year-old right-hander Luis Severino, who has allowed more than two earned runs just twice this season.

2. When will the NL Central start to sort itself out?

We dream of division races like this one, at least the way this one has started. It's not just that four teams -- the Cardinals, Brewers, Cubs and Pirates -- are bunched closely together, although that's the coolest part of the story. It's that a case can be made for any of them winning the division.

The Cubs probably deserve to be slight favorites over the Cards and Brewers. But the strength of the division -- and especially the surprising Bucs -- complicates the pursuit of Wild Card berths as a fallback position.

Video: Must C Comeback: Bucs score 4 in the 9th to shock Sox

There may not be much real separation as long as these four teams are playing outside the division. The Cubs are at Wrigley Field this weekend to play the White Sox, while the Pirates will host Andrew McCutchen and the Giants, who are coming off a tough series in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals are in San Diego and the Brewers are in Colorado amid both teams' growing confidence that they're plenty capable of hanging with one another for the long run.

3. Could the Twins take the American League Central away from the Indians?

Here's what should be worrying the Indians just a tad. We say just a tad because they're still solid favorites to win a third straight division title. That's because there's just so much talent -- deep rotation, potentially a very good offense -- that the division is unlikely to play out any other way.

But the Indians do have problems. Their bullpen badly needs Andrew Miller back from the disabled list -- that could happen this weekend -- and even then, too many position players are hitting in the low .200s.

Video: CLE@MIN: Berrios hurls seven scoreless in Puerto Rico

Those problems have come at a time when the Twins are playing their best baseball of the season, with youngsters Jose Berrios and Fernando Romero helping create a solid rotation and dynamic outfielder Byron Buxton back from a stint on the DL. The Indians need a good weekend at home against the Royals, while the Twins are on the West Coast to play a very solid Angels team (with Shohei Ohtani making his sixth trip to the mound on Sunday).

4. October preview in the Valley of the Sun

The D-backs have passed every team during a sprint to the top of the NL West, and the Nationals have shaken off a start slow enough to raise all kinds of questions. Now, these two teams, both seemingly headed to the postseason, meet in what should be a fun weekend at Chase Field.

Arizona took two of three last month when the two teams played at Nationals Park, but Washington evened the season series with a 2-1 win in 11 innings on Thursday night. The D-backs missed Max Scherzer in that first series and beat Stephen Strasburg. This time, the Nats have Scherzer and Strasburg lined up for Friday and Saturday and righty Jeremy Hellickson on Sunday.

Video: PHI@WSH: Scherzer K's 15 over 6 1/3 immaculate frames

Hellickson was one of a series of smart under-the-radar signings by Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo. The veteran right-hander has pitched 12 1/3 scoreless innings in his last two starts and is sporting a 2.28 ERA.

Arizona's pitching staff has been the NL's best despite injuries to starters Robbie Ray and Taijuan Walker. Righty Matt Koch has done a nice job filling in for Walker, and he'll get the ball opposite Scherzer on Friday.

5. Go ahead and admit you're impressed by these Braves and Phillies

No, it's OK. None of us saw this coming. We knew both teams were close to turning a corner, but the last step to a rebuild -- winning in the big leagues -- is the toughest one.

Or used to be. These two teams have made it look easy. The Braves are off and running with two of baseball's three youngest players -- Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies -- at the top of their lineup and the other, 20-year-old Mike Soroka, in the rotation.

Video: ATL@TB: Acuna lays out for a tremendous 4-star catch

Don't sell the veterans short. First baseman Freddie Freeman, right fielder Nick Markakis and third baseman Ryan Flaherty have been tremendous, and now Jose Bautista has been added to the mix as a veteran presence. As the Braves face the Marlins in South Florida, the dream of contention is suddenly easy to believe.

Video: SF@PHI: Herrera doubles in the bottom of the 4th

Ditto for the Phillies, who are in the top five in the NL in both runs scored and and ERA heading into a weekend home series against the Mets. Right-hander Aaron Nola has emerged as a true ace, and the Phils' front office has done a nice job of lining up power arms in the bullpen. Oh, and center fielder Odubel Herrera, who extended his streak of consecutive games reaching base to 39 on Thursday, is a very serious NL MVP Award candidate.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.